Robert D. Kaplan in his book “Monsoon” transpired, “one diplomat told me that the West should ostracize the Rajapaksa regime and not worry about it becoming a linchpin of Chinese great-power strategy. As he saw it, hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese money invested in the U.S. economy was more central to American interests than one more Chinese-built port in the Indian Ocean which, in any case, was of greater concern to the Indian and Japanese navies than to America’s”. However the diplomat’s calculations seem to be palpable contradictions since the dénouement of the general elections. The United National Party (UNP), of which Ranil Wickremesinghe is the leader, won the recently concluded general elections consolidating 106 seats of the 225 member parliament thus defeating the former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). Hence the above remarks about Sri Lanka being strongly entrenched within the Chinese orbit and the U.S. being less interested in Sri Lanka’s geostrategic significance are profoundly flawed. Given the most recent domestic developments and the forthcoming U.N Human Rights Council report on Sri Lanka this month, it is credible to deduce the fact that Colombo has made rapid progression in recalibrating its foreign policy since the fall of the Rajapaksa Administration.
The incompetence of either of the two main political parties (i.e. UNP & UPFA) to consolidate an absolute majority in Parliament has led to the creation of a national unity government. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between the UNP and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which is the largest coalition partner of the UPFA, immediately after Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the new Prime Minister. Although the Cabinet of Ministers were appointed on September 4, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Justice, and Resettlement and Rehabilitation were appointed on August 24 with the motive of formulating constructive reforms in the fields of foreign policy and human rights hence projecting Sri Lanka as a guardian of those inalienable rights in the international community. The MOU nevertheless explicitly mentions that the new national unity government shall engage in consensual governance and shall adopt a non-aligned foreign policy. This Cold War term seems to be merely limited to a document since 2005 when Rajapaksa through his election manifesto also professed of a non-aligned policy, but conversely practiced a policy with a pro-China tilt. Mangala Samaraweera who was sacked from his portfolio as the Minister of Foreign Affairs under the Rajapaksa government in 2007 for his insubordination and pro-Western policies is tangible evidence which establishes that fact. Nevertheless Samaraweera has occupied his seat as the chief diplomat of Sri Lanka under the new government and has begun to confront the Geneva issue accommodating Washington’s concerns on Sri Lanka’s human rights record.
U.S.-Sri Lanka bilateral relations were strengthened with John Kerry’s visit to Sri Lanka while Washington’s continued assistance was mirrored through the visit of a “Director level” delegation comprising Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, Nisha Biswal, and Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, Tom Malinowsky, a week after elections. America had begun to make strategic inroads into this South Asian strategic entrepôt since the dénouement of the January 08 Presidential elections, which ousted the pro-Chinese Sinhala Buddhist Rajapaksa. Washington’s growing influence and presence are primarily aimed at diluting the influence of the rising dragon in this island nation. Hence it is credible to deduce that Obama’s “Asia Pivot” is not restricted to the East Asia and the Pacific, but has expanded to the Indian Ocean Region which is the cynosure of international sea-lines of communication. In this context Google’s commitment in Sri Lanka to provide universal internet coverage through balloon powered drones hovering above the skies of a sovereign state is no mere coincidence. Albeit the architect of “Google Loon” is a Sri Lankan born billionaire entrepreneur, the ulterior motive and enigmatic designs of Google in Sri Lanka at this decisive juncture cannot be ignored.
A Foreign Affairs article titled “The Digital Disruption” tacitly provides the use of unorthodox tools as foreign policy instruments in furthering American interests. According to Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen “democratic governments will most likely be tempted to further their national interests through the same combination of defense, diplomacy, and development on which they relied during the Cold War and the decades after. But these traditional tools will not be enough: although it remains uncertain exactly how the spread of technology will change governance, it is clear that old solutions will not work in this new era. Governments will have to build new alliances that reflect the rise in citizen power and the changing nature of the state… Democratic states must recognize that their citizens’ use of technology may be a more effective vehicle to promote the values of freedom, equality, and human rights globally than government-led initiatives”. In addition, the intimate nexus between the State Department and Google also suggests that the geopolitical aspirations of the latter are resolutely enmeshed within the U.S. foreign policy agenda. Therefore the MOU signed between the government of Sri Lanka and “Google Loon” on July 28 can be deduced as the primary stages of growing American presence in Sri Lanka which moreover ensures abortion of the rebirth of a Rajapaksa type regime at its infant stage.
Nisha Biswal during her recent visit to Sri Lanka stressed America’s interest in Sri Lanka’s human rights issue. In fact the chain of events unfolded with the inception of a U.S. sponsored Human Rights Council Resolution in March 2012. However Prof. G. L. Peiris the Foreign Minister under the Rajapaksa Administration, on April 7 (2014) stressed that the Sri Lankan government would not cooperate with a U.N. inquiry into alleged war crimes by government forces and the LTTE in the final stages of the protracted conflict. Similar sentiments were expressed by the new Prime Minister of the new government, Ranil Wickremesinghe on August 24. In an interview with “The Hindu” he emphasized that an international inquiry is unnecessary and lacks legal basis, but will present a domestic mechanism in addressing human rights and International Humanitarian Law concerns of the conflict. In this backdrop Nisha Biswal reiterated that “the U.S. has announced it will be offering a resolution at the September session of the Human Rights Council. It will be a resolution of collaboration with the government of Sri Lanka and with other key stake holders… The U.S. now supports a local investigation that the new Sri Lanka government of President Maithripala Sirisena has promised”.
Therefore America’s interest in Sri Lanka’s geostrategic significance has not been diminished, but has augmented with its use of soft power. Unlike the Rajapaksas who were suspicious about the machinations of the West, Wikremesinghe accommodates American presence in Sri Lanka. Ranil Wickremesinghe is a nephew of J. R. Jayewardene, the 1st Executive President of Sri Lanka. The latter was nicknamed as “Yankie Dickie” because of his special relationship with Ronald Regan and his pro-American tilt in the 1980s. Wickremesinghe was entertained by George W. Bush in July 2002 when the former was the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka from 2001 – 2004. As a consequence he allowed Sri Lanka to be used as a transit point for the CIA’s extra-rendition program in 2003. Given such links with the U.S. administrations, there is little doubt that the new government, of which Wickremesinghe is the Prime Minister, will adopt a non-aligned policy. However the President of Sri Lanka delivering the “Throne Speech” or the “Inaugural Speech” on September 1 opined that “millions of Sri Lankans are now using new technological equipment which enable to connect with the whole world on their palms… Today we are living in a globalized new world. In that context, every country in the world is important to us. There are many things we can learn from them and they can learn from us. As a result of that openness and friendship between the countries will remain as the foundation of our foreign policy. I have also previously mentioned that we have entered into the century of Asia. Accordingly I will state that my Government will pay more attention towards a foreign policy which is an Asia-centric middle-path policy”.
Moreover the destiny of the Chinese funded mega projects under the Rajapaksa Administration is yet to be determined. Although the construction of the Colombo-Kandy Expressway has resumed with Chinese funding, the fate of the Colombo Port City Project is at an indeterminate state. The Chinese will continue to fund infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka but the new government will not allow Sri Lanka to become a Chinese outpost in the Indian Ocean. Conversely Sri Lanka will become the linchpin of U.S. strategic policy in the IOR in the foreseeable future.
(The writer is an Attorney-at-Law and a Visiting Lecturer on International Relations at the University of Colombo)